UAE-based pilot Safia Hosein recently became the first citizen of Trinidad and Tobago to climb Antarctica’s highest peak. Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: Captain Safia Hosein, a helicopter pilot in the UAE, has been conquering unparalleled heights, both literally and figuratively, in her professional and personal life.

Adventurer Hosein, who is based in Abu Dhabi, recently became the first citizen of Trinidad and Tobago to climb Antarctica’s highest peak, one of almost a dozen peaks and the second of the Seven Summits (the highest mountains on each of the seven traditional continents) that she has conquered over the past decade.

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Sharing her trailblazing story with Gulf News, the 41-year-old revealed how she fulfilled her ambition of flying helicopters that she had nurtured from a young age and how she broke the glass ceiling in personal life as well by conquering mountains.

Born in Biche, a village in east Trinidad and Tobago, Hosein said she had realised her penchant for piloting when she was a kid. “I grew up in a not-so-rich area where many people planted marijuana to earn extra money,” she recalled.

She said her country’s government had asked the US authorities to help raid these illegal farms. “My house was where the helicopters with the US officers used to land. I grew up seeing this.”

Captain Safia Hosein Image Credit:

Turning point

However, a turning point came through at a career day in her school when she was 16. “My school invited a bunch of professionals and there was a pilot there. I was really inspired and that’s when I firmly decided that’s what I was gonna do.”

At 17, she found flying lessons for helicopters expensive. “My parents couldn’t afford it.”

The family then decided it would be cheaper for Hosein to become an aeroplane pilot first. “I actually got my student pilot licence before I got my driver’s licence and I started flying in Trinidad when I was 18. And then I went to Canada and I got my commercial aeroplane pilot licence.”

Hosein then took another loan and went to Florida to earn her helicopter license. “If you fly more often, it takes less time to get your license. I got my aeroplane licence in nine months and my helicopter licence in six months.”

She recalled that her dad was happy to see his dream come true through her since he had been once recruited by the Royal Air Force while living in the UK, but he had to abandon his ambition due to his mother’s apprehensions about his safety.

Safia Hosein displays UAE flag at the base camp of Mount Vinson Image Credit: Supplied

Challenging flights

Hosein’s career took her from flying in Trinidad for six years to working in Qatar for three years and eventually to the UAE.

“In the Caribbean, you have to deal with the hurricane season. It’s definitely more challenging than with the weather here. Also, when I was flying there, I didn’t have any autopilot on my aircraft. So my hands are on the controls [of the cockpit] sometimes for nine hours. So, it is not a glamorous life sometimes. It’s hard work.”

However, having specialised in oil and gas industry, Hosein has flown helicopters in challenging conditions to offshore sites in Trinidad, Qatar and the UAE.

“We land on jackup rigs (barges fitted with long support legs that can be raised or lowered), we land on permanent installations and we land on ships. The ships are the most challenging landing points because they are actually moving with waves. So, you have the time to put the helicopter down when the ship comes up with the wave or when it is on the crest of the wave.”

Safia Hosein during the flight Image Credit:

Near-death experiences

While in Qatar, she also faced a near-death experience in 2011.

“The helicopter I was in had a part break off due to a design fault, catching fire just a minute before take-off. Fortunately, the incident occurred while we were parked, in front of the hangar, and the fire was quickly extinguished, saving me, the other pilot, and around 15 passengers from death.”

In offshore flights, she said pilots conduct personnel transport, photography flights, VIP flights and medevac flights (medical evacuation flights from oil rigs).

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In the UAE, she later became a VIP helicopter pilot and got opportunities to fly many VIPs. She is particularly thankful to a top UAE official who, she said, offered her crucial assistance when she faced a life-threatening medical crisis five years ago.

“I am grateful for the luck I had in the Qatar accident and to the UAE official who arranged proper medical attention for me while I nearly faced death once again. In fact, I wish to dedicate my recent Mount Vinson climb [in Antarctica] to him since I would have been dead without his timely intervention. I am also grateful to the doctors at Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi who saved my life after that.”

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Safia also works as a 'VIP' helicopter pilot and got opportunities to fly many VIPs Image Credit:

Conquering mountains

While Hosein’s professional life soared to new heights after she got a job with the National Search and Rescue Centre in the UAE, her personal pursuits saw her conquering mountains. A mountaineer since 2013, Hosein is thrilled to be the first Trinidadian to summit Mount Vinson in Antarctica last month. While she is mostly accompanied by her husband Dave, who is also a helicopter pilot as well as an air accident investigator, in most of her adventurous trips, Hosein travelled solo for her Mount Vinson expedition and joined a group of mountaineers over there.

With extreme temperatures and physical challenges, her 12-day Antarctic expedition added another milestone to her list of mountaineering achievements which include conquering Africa’s highest peak, Mount Kilimanjaro and the Everest Base Camp.

Being a brown-skinned woman challenging stereotypes and breaking barriers, Hosein considers herself a rarity in both aviation and mountaineering, championing diversity in the two male-dominated fields.

“People look at me and they judge me immediately whether it is in the aviation industry or in mountaineering. So you do stand out. That doesn’t mean you should not do something that you didn’t have access to,” she said.

Undeterred by judgements and stereotypes, she encourages others to pursue their passions regardless of societal expectations. Hosein said she believes in filtering out negativity, standing firm in her conviction that everyone should follow their dreams, no matter their background.